Seasonal Affective Disorder: Lack of Sunlight Can Lead to Depression

The winter doldrums are upon us, and shorter days can leave many of us yearning for brighter, longer daylight hours. But, for some, these feelings can go well beyond the “winter blues.”

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), sometimes referred to as seasonal depression, is a type of depression that happens most commonly in fall and winter months. Symptoms usually ease during the spring and summer and tend to come back and then improve on a yearly cycle.

There are two major patterns of seasonal depression: fall-onset and spring-onset. With fall-onset, it’s believed that less daylight hours may trigger a chemical change in the brain leading to symptoms of depression. Melatonin, a sleep-related brain hormone that is secreted under darker conditions, is more plentiful when the days are shorter and has been linked to seasonal depression. A less common, but more acute type of SAD is bipolar disorder with seasonal variation, in which episodes of elevated mood (mania or hypomania) alternate with depression in a seasonal pattern.

What are the most common symptoms of fall-onset seasonal depression?

• Loss of interest and pleasure in activities that you once enjoyed.

• Feelings of anxiety, guilt, and hopelessness. 

• Extreme tiredness, which can include increased sleep and daytime fatigue.

• Trouble thinking clearly and difficulty focusing.

• Increased appetite, especially for sweets and carbohydrates.

• Weight gain.

If you are concerned that you may be suffering from SAD, it is important to check in with your healthcare provider. And there are some things you do for yourself to help ease the symptoms:

• Eat healthy, well-balanced meals. For food resources in Charlestown and surrounding communities, please reach out to local social service organizations (such as the Charlestown Coalition, the John F. Kennedy Center, or Harvest On Vine). You can also find local food resources through the City of Boston Food Resources Chatbot by texting ‘FOOD’ to 617-579-8238.

• Get regular exercise. You don’t have to do it alone – ask a friend or family member to join you in a walk around the Monument St Track or the Bunker Hill Monument.

• Stay away from alcohol and illegal drugs. These can make depression worse.

• Set realistic goals and don’t take on too much. Break large tasks into small ones, set priorities, and do what you can as you can.

• Let your family and friends help you.

• Try to be with other people and confide in someone.

• Don’t make a big change right away. Talk it over first with others who know you well. Delay big decisions until the depression has lifted.

• Try to be patient and focus on the positives. This may help replace the negative thinking that is part of the depression.

• People don’t often snap quickly out of a depression. Expect your mood to get better slowly, not right away. Feeling better takes time.

• Reach out and seek help from your health care provider.

How is seasonal depression treated?

• Exposure to sunlight. Simply spending time outside every day, even in winter weather, is often the most effective first-line treatment for seasonal depression.

• Light therapy. If increasing sunlight is not possible, exposure to specially designed artificial light sources for a certain amount of time each day may help. Certain light sources are best for SAD. Check with your healthcare provider for a recommendation.

• Antidepressants. Prescription medicines, such as SSRIs (serotonin-specific reuptake inhibitors), can help correct the chemical imbalance that may lead to SAD.

• Psychotherapy. Cognitive-behavioral or interpersonal therapy can help you identify things that cause you stress and learn how to manage them.

SAD is treatable, but it is important to seek help from your local health care provider. To find out more about SAD and all of its forms, visit

From the MGH Charlestown HealthCare Center

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